“Port wine” and “summer” aren’t two words that usually go together, but I’m here to bust up your preconceptions about this wine that you probably think is drunk in the winter time by old men after eating a big roast or something (yep, I said it).
While in Porto, Portugal, I had the opportunity to visit two of the oldest port wine lodges: Graham’s and Cockburn’s (pronounced Co-burn’s). While there, I was inspired with some new ways to enjoy port and I’m here to drop some inspo on you!
You may be familiar with port wine as the after-dinner sip that is so beloved by Brits. They frequently drink it after a meal with desserts (especially chocolate) and/or strong bleu cheese (blech … I hate bleu cheese.) It’s because the U.K. and Portugal have a 600-year-old alliance that grew out of the shipping trade. British importers would bring wool and cod fish to Portugal and return to England with olive oil, fruits and … wine!
For centuries, port wine – the sweet red wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley fortified with brandy until it reaches between 19-22% alcohol-by-volume – has been and still is enjoyed by the British, and sometimes by Americans as an after-dinner sip.
Fast-forward to 2022. During my tours at Graham’s and at Cockburn’s, I got an excellent refresher course on the winemaking, ageing and blending processes and we talked about some exciting new ways to enjoy port.
Feet Are Out; Machines Are In
I’m not going to get all technical and geeky on the winemaking, aging or fortifying but there is one change that I think is interesting. For hundreds of years, after the grapes were harvested from the steep terraces of the Douro Valley and destemmed, workers would tread the grapes with their own feet. Yes, really. For four hours. (It was a long day!)
But with more and more young people leaving the area and seeking work and careers elsewhere, it was necessary to find a new way. Special machines were engineered with foot-like treaders that mimic the weight and texture of human feet. So weird, right? (Our guide Francisco showed me one and it’s a flesh-colored, silicone, brick-shaped object.) So, the treading gets done, but sadly, the tradition is gone.
Aside from this, not a lot has changed about the actual production of port, except that the wines are now trucked to the port lodges in Porto now instead of in barrels loaded onto boats up the Douro River.
New Ways to Enjoy Port This Summer
Sure, you can sip it after a meal (we were served a complimentary glass in a restaurant just last night, after crushing a platter of sushi!). But there are more ways to enjoy port than just after a meal.
- Port as an Aperitif Before a Meal. What? Yes! With strong, robust cheeses, a glass of port can whet your appetite for what’s to come. If you like bleu cheese, that one is a no-brainer. An aged Gouda would also be great, or an aged white cheddar or nutty Gruyère. You could also do salty oil-cured olives with port wine, some walnuts or salted almonds, and of course, dried fruits like apricots and dates would round it out. The point is: try it, you might like it! You can move on to wine or other drinks with dinner, but I’m eager to treat friends to a little pre-dinner port with carefully chosen snacks.
- Port With a Meal – It might seem crazy, but port wine can match with more savory foods than just cheese. Consider foie gras or foie gras paté. The classic French pairing with foie is Sauternes, a very sweet white wine from Bordeaux. Why not try a white port with foie gras?
Would I recommend pairing port with a steak or grilled chicken? Maybe not – but you could make a heavenly sauce for a pan-seared or grilled piece of beef, duck, or lamb using ruby or late-bottled-vintage port.
And have you heard of rosé port? Yep, it exists and I tried it! It’s sweet – but with less intensity than a ruby or tawny, and it is sold in the U.S. Try a rosé port with smoked salmon on potato chips!
- Port Cocktails – On my first trip to Portugal in Fall 2021, I was introduced to the Porto Tonico, a light, bright and utterly refreshing fizz-up of white port and tonic water, garnished with a medley of citrus slices and mint leaves served in a giant stemmed balloon glass. (Another option is to make it with sparkling water instead of tonic, for a less-sweet, even lighter cocktail.)
While at WOW in Porto (World of Wine – an ingenious interactive wine museum conceived by Adrian Bridge, CEO of Taylor’s) – I had another cocktail made of Croft rosé port, Aperol and sparkling water – it was deeelicious!
And at Cockburn’s, I tasted not only their white port – the most widely available white port in the U.S. – but also two new ports that are being marketed specifically for cocktail: Ruby Soho and Tawny Eyes. (I don’t think these are available yet in the U.S., but keep an eye out).
Ports to Explore
Graham’s is one of the oldest port lodges, founded in 1890. It was acquired by the Symington family in 1970. The vineyards for the Graham’s ports are in the Cima Corgo area of the Douro Valley, and the wines are intensely rich and complex.
Six Grapes Ruby Port (aged 3-4 years) – This one is like a port puppy in a vineyard — all bright and fresh, with raspberry jam, and eager to please. Very easy to drink!
Graham’s 2000 Vintage (bottled in 2002; unfiltered, so bottle-aging continues). More candied fruits, black cherry, black raspberry. A lot more complexity.
Grahams 10-Year Tawny – Fresh strawberry pie in a glass!
Graham’s 20-Year Tawny – Like a hot-cross bun married a pecan roll and then had a menage à trois with some caramel custard. What a wine!
Graham’s 30-Year Tawny – Welcome to the spice factory! This wine offers cinnamon, cardamom and other baking spices and is less sweet.
Colheita 1997 Tawny – Very intense, very raisiny, bursting with dried dates and figs, this is a super-concentrated wine that deserves to be savored thoughtfully.
On to Cockburn’s! This is the largest port lodge in all of Vila Nova de Gaia, housing 9 million liters of port! One of the coolest things about Cockburn’s (part of the Symington empire) is their on-site cooperage. They maintain all of their old barrels and vats, stave-by-stave, or hoop by hoop, so they literally last forever. The grapes for Cockburn’s ports come from the Douro Superior region, just east of Cima Corgo, bringing jammier black fruits, peppery finishes and higher levels of tannins to the wines.
Cockburn’s White Port – This is free-run juice made from only white grapes. It’s a delight – bright with tropical fruits, and evocative of orange cream cheese frosting on pound cake. Perfect for a Porto Tonico. You want the recipe, don’t you? It’s easy: each drink should be 1/3 white port and 2/3 tonic water (or sparkling water, or a combo – experiment to find your perfect taste). Garnish with your choice of lime, lemon or orange slices and/or mint leaves. Serve in a stemmed wine glass! The Portuguese serve these in large balloon glasses!
Cockburn’s Ruby Soho – This new wine is currently only sold in Portugal and the U.K. and is perfect for cocktails. It’s got intense red and blue fruits and a little cinnamon red hots candy thing going on. Our guide Joana suggested adding a splash of ginger beer and to this on ice, and I can totally imagine it would be delicious!
Cockburn’s Tawny Eyes – Another new wine being marketed to cocktail lovers, this port is all cinnamon-raisiny goodness in a glass. I think a Negroni made with this + gin + a small splash of Campari would be really delicious.
Cockburn’s Special Reserve Ruby Port – All the berries and cherries are here! Black cherry, blackberry, cherry, cassis come together and deliver a nice, subtle peppery finish with nice acidity that make you want to take another sip.
Cockburn’s 2007 Vintage Ruby – Ooh-wee – we loved this one! It spent 13 years bottle-aging, and the result is a sweet, rich wine that has a silky texture and dreamy flavors of dates and raisins. Very elegant.
And there you have it. I hope you feel inspired to add some port into your summer wine rotation! And of course, if you visit Porto, book some tastings at these magnificent port houses. They both have options ranging from 15 euros up to 140 euros for the fancy stuff. And thank you, Symington team for coordinating an amazing day at Graham’s and Cockburn’s!